110 years ago one of the most significant aviation milestones took place in the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On Dec 17th, 1903 at 10:35am, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted the first ever controlled heavier than air, engine powered flight in the aircraft they designed and built themselves, the Wright Flyer. After 4 years of experimenting in flight control the Wright brothers, formerly known for their bicycle and print shop in Dayton, Ohio had succeeded where all others had failed. The development of “wing warping” and a moveable rudder to control the aircraft, accompanied with a suitable engine were key to the success of their aerodynamic design.
Earlier this year I visited the Wright Brothers National Monument which is in an area of dunes in Kill Devil Hills where the flight actually took place. The town of Kill Devil Hills was incorporated in 1953 but was just a remote sparsely populated area 50 years earlier when the Wright Brothers decided it was perfect for their experiments in flight.
Each year from 1900 to 1903 the Wright brothers would come to Kill Devil Hills to test their gliders (unmanned and manned) and ultimately the Wright Flyer which they had designed and built back in Ohio (they continued to use the site for flight testing until 1911). They would set up camp out there for weeks on end conducting their experiments and tinkering with their designs. Eventually it all paid off for them but there was a close call.
On December 14th, 1903 just a few days before the successful flight, Wilbur (following a coin toss win) attempted a short 3 second flight in the Wright Flyer which almost ended in disaster. Following take off the engine stalled and the aircraft suffered minor damage following the crash (it was not classed as the first flight as it was not a controlled flight). Luckily the brothers were able to make the necessary repairs and get the Wright Flyer into the air just 3 days later.
The first flight completed in the Wright Flyer on December 17th, 1903 was piloted by Orville (it was his turn following the coin toss on December 14th), at 10:35am as it started to travel along the guiding rail, Wilbur ran alongside and the Flyer lifted into the air, travelling for a mere 12 seconds just above the ground, covering 120 feet /37 metres. This short flight marked one of the greatest achievements in history! Fortunately the moment was captured on film and remains one of the most famous photos in history.
On that same day they completed 3 more successful flights, each travelling further than the last (they flew 2 flights each). The second flight was ready to go at 11:20 am and in 12 seconds they travelled 175 feet / 53 metres. The third flight took off at 11:40am, lasting 15 seconds they travelled 200 feet / 61 metres.
The last flight for the day was the one the Wright Brothers considered a success. The Wright Flyer flew for 59 seconds and travelled 852 feet /260 metres. Unfortunately the front elevator of the Flyer was damaged on this flight, then in a gust of wind the aircraft was overturned many times and basically destroyed. This historic aircraft would never fly again. Hence it was the last flight for the day! Despite this setback the Wright brothers achieved their personal dream, became national heroes and changed the world forever on that day!
The Wright brothers then dedicated their lives to aviation. On May 14th, 1908 another piece of history was made near Kitty Hawk when Wilbur Wright completed the first ever passenger flight by taking mechanic Charles Furnas aloft in a Wright Flyer (they flew for 2 miles / 3.2 kilometres that day). By 1905 the Wright Brothers had what they considered a practical aircraft in their Wright Flyer III (on October 5th, 1905 Wilbur flew the aircraft for 39 minutes travelling a circuit of around 24 miles / 39 kilometres). By 1910 aircraft were in operation around the world in both civilian and military use including many built by the Wright brothers themselves. The first ever military aeroplane was a 1909 Wright Military Flyer which was purchased by the US Army.
Sadly Wilbur (1867-1912) died of Typhoid Fever at just 45 years of age and never truly got to see the impact of his invention which really took hold on the world during World War One and onwards. Orville (1871-1948) on the other hand enjoyed a long and wealthy life passing away at the age of 75 due to a heart attack. Following Wilbur’s death, Orville took over as the president of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company but he was not as interested as his older brother in the business side of things and sold the company in 1915. Orville spent the last few decades of his life Orville serving on various aviation related boards and committees and continued to influence the aviation industry.
It was amazing to finally see in person a place I had first read about as a kid. The area has changed a lot since 1903, most of the sand dunes have drifted away and grass now covers much of the area but it was fantastic to stand where the Wright brothers made their first flights and also to see how far they flew, which was not really that far at all! Each flight has a marker stone to indicate where they took off from and the distance they achieved.
The Wright Brothers National Monument is a fitting tribute to these great men. Standing up on the last remaining large sand dune and taking in the area below, where the flights took place was a significant moment in my own quest for discovery in regards to aviation history.
What happened to the original 1903 Wright Flyer that completed the first powered flight? Thankfully it was preserved and rebuilt. It is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. The Smithsonian also has the first ever military aeroplane the 1909 Wright Military Flyer. After going to Kitty Hawk I had to make another visit to DC and go see the Wright Flyer.
Thank you Orville and Wilbur. Your contribution to aviation is one of the most significant moments in history and one I truly appreciate!